The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated federal environmental laws by failing to give the public enough of a say before issuing permits for mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers involves permits issued to subsidiaries of Consol Energy and Penn Virginia Resources. But it could have far-reaching implications for the ongoing debate over mountaintop removal coal mining.
Environmental groups have been pushing the Obama administration to ban the highly efficient practice as too damaging. The coal industry argues that would devastate parts of Appalachia by eliminating thousands of jobs and cut coal supplies, pushing up electricity prices for American consumers.
"Most of the pending permits in West Virginia may need to go back through the public process," said Oliver Bernstein, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The corps, Penn Virginia, Consol and the National Mining Association had no immediate comment. Approximately 23 applications for West Virginia surface mines are pending before the corps.
Chambers held that the corps violated the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act when it issued permits for Penn Virginia's Nellis surface mine and Consol's Ike Fork mines. He ruled that public notices for the permits failed to provide a clear understanding of the nature and magnitude of the mines or allow the public to be involved sufficiently in the permitting process.
Chambers ordered the corps to correct the problem with the permits, though he allowed both companies to continue "limited" mining for 60 days.
"The Court realizes that the procedural flaw identified by Plaintiffs did not stem from any wrong-doing on the part of the mining companies," Chambers wrote.
Already, 79 surface mining permits pending in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee are being delayed for additional scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency, which also has used its power to rescind a permit issued two years ago for a large West Virginia surface mine. Separately, the corps is considering rules that would eliminate a streamlined process for obtaining mountaintop removal mining permits.